Tony Maylam’s excursion into the summer camp slash fest The Burning has a lot in common with Just Before Dawn. Both movies were made in 1981, both feature young people dying in the woods, and both are filled with subtext. However, while the makers of Just Before Dawn’s decided to remove the religious subtext in favor of a simple thriller, The Burning opted to focus on themes of gender and sexuality in between kills. This give the film- which in all other aspects is a well crafted, but by-the-numbers genre piece- a richness that most first wave slashers lack.
One night, a group of disgruntled campers plan their revenge on resident misanthropic groundskeeper, nicknamed Cropsy (Lou David). Their plan is to place a flaming skull on Cropsy’s bed, and wake him up; giving him the scare of his life. Predictably, the prank goes wrong, and Cropsy ends up burned and irreparably disfigured. Years later, Cropsy is released from the hospital. The doctors tell him that blaming the children is useless, but Cropsy ignores their advice and heads towards his old campground. Meanwhile, a group of campers, led by counselors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayers), are headed out on their end-of-the-year float trip. The campers are hoping this trip will bring on much emotional growth (read: getting laid), but Cropsy has other plans.
The Burning has a large cast, even for a slasher, with ten major characters, plus the other campers. Aside from Todd and Michelle, the film follows the subplots of Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), who is trying to seduce Karen (Carolyn Houlihan); Glazer (Larry Joshua), who is trying to seduce Sally (Carrick Glenn); Dave (Jason Alexander), Fish (J.R. McKechnie), and Woodstock (Fisher Stevens), who are enjoying camp; and Alfred (Brian Backer), who just wants to make some friends. While the larger cast makes true character development impossible, the characters still come off as people, and not stereotypes. Even the other campers seem three dimensional, and many of them look like actual teenagers! Maylam had a great script and great actors to work with, and he uses both expertly, giving the film an emotional depth not found in other films of this nature.
Interestingly enough, The Burning is much more male-focused than other slasher flicks. Most slasher movies focus on female protagonists, with men as love interests, nerds, or the aggravating comedic relief. While The Burning does include female characters, they are mostly passive in the actions of the plot. In the romantic subplots, the girls are simply there to be pursued by the horny boys, and all of the decisions on trying to survive Cropsy’s onslaught are made by the males. While this does have the unfortunate effect of reducing the women in this movie to sex objects, it does allow for some interesting relationships not usually seen in horror movies; particularly in regards to Alfred. Alfred has a complicated relationship with Glazer. While Glazer bullies him, Alfred is nonetheless obsessed with him and his relationship with Sally. In the beginning of the film, Alfred tries to scare Sally, and then once the campers make it to their island, Alfred sneaks off to watch Glazer and Sally have sex. Ostensibly, this is to show how awkward Alfred is, but it seems like it goes beyond simple awkwardness. Outside scaring Sally at the beginning of the movie, Alfred shows little interest in her, but he shows a lot of interest in Glazer. It could be interpreted as Alfred wanting to emulate Glazer’s macho posture, but it could also be that Alfred has a crush on Glazer that is unknown to the other campers, or even to Alfred himself.
The awkwardness of teenage sexuality is also a main focus in the film, as most of the subplots focus on the characters failed attempt at physical romance: Eddy comes on too strong and scares away Karen; Glazer experiences premature ejaculation; and Cropsy’s first victim is a prostitute who refuses him services (though more than likely he never meant to sleep with her in the first place). Unlike many slasher movies where the teenage victims are amazingly hot teenagers with no problems getting their significant others into bed (not to mention perfect sexual performance), the teenagers in this film represent a more realistic view of teenage sexuality. Despite the objectified way women are presented in this movie (close ups of breasts and buttocks are rampant), the chauvinistic behavior is never celebrated. Eddy is presented as a jerk, we are made to sympathize with Karen, and Glazer’s macho posturing is ultimately shown to just be that. The male characters that we are supposed to identify with are the masculine but sensitive Todd and the sexually ambiguous omega male Alfred. It seems like Maylam is trying to reconcile the teenage fantasy of endless sexuality and macho virility with the reality of sexual frustration and the failure of a misogynistic worldview.
In terms of plot, The Burning is nothing new. What makes it stand out–outside of its awesome sense of suspense and Tom Savini created gore effects– is its treatment of teenage sexuality. While you can certainly enjoy the movie on a superficial level, looking into the movie’s subtext can add another layer of enjoyment. What’s more, the merging of intelligent themes with visceral scares creates the perfect horror movie experience: while you watch the movie, you’ll be screaming, but once the movie is over it will give you something to talk about other than breasts and blood.
Part of a series:
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Mystics in Bali (1981)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Cthulhu (2007)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Just Before Dawn (1981)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: House (1977)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Introduction